I've lived in Arizona for 68 years (Tucson, Glendale, and Sedona). I love writing about Arizona history, antiques, books, and travel.
When a friend who is a prolific reader of mostly non-fiction told me that I should read A Gentleman in Moscow, a fictional novel about a former Russian Count, Alexander Ilyich Rostov, sentenced to spend the remainder of his life in the Hotel Metropol in Moscow for a poem he had written that was considered to be anti-communist, I thought, no way! In college, I had suffered while being forced to read War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, and Anna Karenina. I remember the storylines in these novels moving at turtle's pace and each character having four or five names.
After a second friend recommended the novel and Bill Gates named it as one of the top five books he recommends, I figured I should give it a chance. I did, and I loved it.
The novel begins with Alexander (also called Sasha) on trial for a poem that he has written that is considered to be anti-communist by the new Russian Government of 1922. Alexander is a count, and he is in danger of facing a firing squad for writing the poem and for a deep resentment of his past life of luxury on his family estate. He is saved by his military bravery for fighting in the Pre-Revolutionary War of 1918, so he is spared death and escorted to the Hotel Metropol.
He must give up his suite of rooms and is directed to a tiny room in the hotel attic. He is permitted to keep two chairs, a writing desk, and a few mementos from his former life. Alexander remembers the wisdom of his grandmother, who told him that possessions, in the end, are just things. His mantra becomes the wisdom his father, a grand duke, had given him that "Adversity presents itself in many forms, and if a man does not master his circumstances, then he is bound to be mastered by them."
The employees of the hotel continue to call him by his title and treat him with the utmost respect, and Alexander continues the same routines of a weekly trim by the barber, eating in the formal Boyarsky restaurant, and spending time in the bar and lobby. Rather than complaining, Alexander draws on his past travels and memories: "Count didn't have the temperament for revenge and hadn't the fanciful to dream the empires would be restored."
He devotes much of his time to reading the essays of Montaigne, whose wise quotes appear in the novel at just the right moments. Over the course of years, the hotel employees become his friends, and eventually, Alexander becomes an employee of the hotel through his extensive knowledge of wine and food and how to "arrange" people to their best social advantage. He meets all types of people in the hotel's bar and restaurant and is often able to offer them advice.
Details of life out side the hotel over thirty years in Moscow are told through events taking place at the hotel, by the guests staying there who Alexander interacts with, and by his old friends who visit him. But at the heart of the novel is how Alexander manages his unusual circumstances with clever "practicalities."
The Other Characters and Their Developoment
Early in the story, Alexander meets Old Pirate, a one-eyed cat, who also becomes a symbol of one who is able to make the best of his current circumstances. While Alexander is the narrator of the story, the Metropol Hotel almost functions as an unusual character and as a place of luxury that welcomes guests from many countries. The service and excellent foods and wines seem unchanged during the many years of Russia's changing politics.
Chef Andry, the hotel chef, is a true cooking expert, and he has ways to find the supplies he needs on the black market to keep the Boyarsky restaurant food and wine up to pre-revolutionary standards for the foreign guests and members of the Russian government.
Nina, a little girl who loves the color yellow, becomes Alexander's friend because she is impressed with his title and wants to learn the rules of being a princess. She takes Alexander on a tour of the Metropol hotel to places behind the scenes that he has never seen and gives him an invaluable gift. Her independent spirit leads her to work in the communist communes when she turns eighteen.
Marina, the hotel seamstress, befriends Alexander and Nina, and her room is one of their favorite places in the hotel. Mr. Halecki, the hotel manager, resents Alexander because he has gained the respect of the guests and employees and he suspects Alexander of not being loyal to the new government.
Mikhail Fyodorovich is an old friend from Alexander's school days and a poet. Anna Urbanova is a movie star who becomes Alexander's lover. Sofia, Nina's daughter who through unfortunate circumstances, is raised by Alexander.
Reasons to Love A Gentleman in Moscow
I'm an avid reader of all types of fiction and non-fiction, and this novel is unlike any I've ever read before. The story weaves all kinds of characters, stories, and cultural events together seamlessly. I learned a lot about Russian history and Russian culture in a manner that was very interesting.
The first time I read this book was about two years ago, but on a particularly low day during the COVID-19 pandemic, after staying home for two months, I thought of many of the bits of wisdom regarding making the best of circumstances that can't be changed, and I re-read the book. In the first reading, I sped through the storyline, but in the second reading, I enjoyed the details and the clever way the story was crafted. I'm not a reader that requires a "happy" ending, but A Gentleman in Moscow has a very satisfactory one with a few surprises.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2020 mactavers
mactavers (author) on July 28, 2020:
I hope you enjoy it.
Rose McCoy from West Virginia on July 28, 2020:
This is a great article! I’ll have to check the book out. Thanks!